[Stop-traffic] News/US: Immigrants taught to sue for unpaid wages

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/US: Immigrants taught to sue for unpaid wages
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Tue Nov 14 2000 - 10:32:04 EST

Immigrants taught to sue for unpaid wages
By Edward Hegstrom
The Houston Chronicle, November 30, 2000

Abel Rivera is a Mexican immigrant who says he was stiffed out of two
weeks of wages at a Houston construction site.

His story sounds like many thousands of others. Except that Rivera
plans something that may be unprecedented: He intends to fight back
in court.

Rivera and nearly a dozen other Spanish-speaking immigrants gathered
Wednesday at a local union hall where they learned how to fill out
the paperwork to file small-claims lawsuits seeking back wages from

"We believe we're breaking new ground here," said Dale Wortham,
president of the local AFL-CIO Council, which organized the effort.
"We're teaching them to sue."

Wortham expects to file the suits in Justice of the Peace George E.
Risner's court today, part of a new campaign among unions to organize
the notoriously disenfranchised immigrant labor force.

A woman told Wortham that she has been sexually harassed. But
virtually all the others present complained of not being paid wages
they deserve.

Rivera and a few friends said they are carpenters who went to work
for a Spanish-speaking independent contractor on a framing job. The
workers say they were last paid in early September.

"We continued working two weeks," said Rivera, who says he was
cheated out of $800. "They didn't pay us."

Thirteen men worked on the job, Rivera said, but it was not clear if
all will sue.

The contractor could not be reached for comment.

Immigrant workers regularly complain about being stiffed for wages,
particularly on construction jobs where help is sometimes hired by
the day. Contractors sometimes threaten to call police or federal
immigration authorities.

Advocates say it's usually an idle threat. At least in Houston,
police have made it clear they will not report someone to immigration
authorities unless they commit a crime. In fact, Houston officers
have been known to help immigrant workers who can clearly show they
have been stiffed by contractors.

But taking a case to court may be passing into uncharted territory.
Federal courts have established that an illegal alien has the same
right to sue as anyone else, according to an analysis published
recently in the Texas Bar Journal.

Judges in state or local courts must report an illegal alien to the
Immigration and Naturalization Service only if the person has been
convicted of a felony.

Wortham said he doesn't ask immigrants about their legal status, and
he doesn't expect the issue to come up in court. It wouldn't make
much sense for an employer to broach the topic, he said. "Then they
would be on record saying that they hire illegal workers," Wortham
noted. "We would welcome them to do that."

Melanie Orhant
Stop-Traffic Moderator

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